Life is uncertain. Eat Dessert first.

Cooking with Children

Nigella Lawson opens the section on Cooking with Children in her book How to Eat with the truism “that the more children are encouraged to help with the cooking, the less likely they are to be picky eaters”. Jamie Oliver, whose work to try to educate people about healthy food choices and education about cooking is hugely undervalued, talks about the importance of smelling, touching, tasting and creating when cooking with children, not just making smiley faces on pizzas or baking hedgehog cookies or disgusting foods.

If you want (and you should) get children engaged in the cooking process, it is important to understand that they are there to help you, so don’t try to get them involved in something so complex that all they can do is give a “lucky stir” of the bowl at the end of the process. They need to feel like they’ve made a contribution, and that will help capture their imagination for food and cooking. If a child spends an hour and a half standing on a chair watching you carefully measure everything with no input themselves, they are going to associate cooking with being a boring chore.

On the flip side, you cannot just leave the child with a countertop laden with ingredients and equipment and leave them to their own devices to make the dinner. Children need to be fully supervised in the kitchen at all times. Do not let them near sharp knives, do not let them use equipment unattended, and make sure they understand why they need to constantly wash their hands, especially after handling raw meat. As the child grows older and becomes more comfortable in the kitchen, then the extent to what they can help out with can increase, but even from an early age helping with the cooking is a great opportunity to teach them about flavours, freshness of ingredients, and preparing fruit and vegetables, as well as basic kitchen hygiene and skills.

I enrolled my nephew Adam to act as my assistant in the kitchen, and together we prepared a starter, main course and dessert for eight people.

Name: Adam

Age: 7

Favourite Food: Nuggets and Chips

Least Favourite Food: Snails and Frogs Legs

Favourite Chef: Ratatouile

We started with a trip to the shops to buy our ingredients. It’s important to make children feel like they have an active role in the shopping, otherwise you are just going to be dragging a bored and disinterested child around the supermarket. I got Adam to help me pick the ripest fruit, the best vegetables, and got him to smell the herbs and any fresh produce we were buying.

When we got home we put away everything we didn’t need immediately, got our ingredients and equipment ready, and cleaned down all our work surfaces with a disinfectant spray. Once we had our aprons on, we got going on the starter – Melon and Mint Soup with Crispy Parma served in Shot Glasses from Darina Allen’s Easy Entertaining. I cut a Galia Melon in half and removed the seeds. Myself and Adam took a half each, and scooped out the flesh and spooned it into a liquidizer. While I chopped two tablespoons of fresh mint, Adam squeezed the juice from a lemon (that I had cut in half for him), and we added both to the melon. Adam put in two tablespoons of caster sugar, put the lid on, and then he turned the dial to liquidize everything until it was smooth. I put the jug straight into the fridge to chill. We then spread three slices of parma ham in a single layer on a baking tray, and lay another tray on top. Adam put the trays in an oven preheated to 180deg C, and we left them to cook for about eight minutes. I took them out of the oven and left them aside to cool.

Our main course was a version of homemade Pork Burgers with Lime Leaves and Coriander from Nigel Slater’s Kitchen Diaries, and we served them with homemade chips. I chopped eight spring onions, 2 hot red chillies (seeds removed), six cloves of garlic and the stalks and leaves from a bunch of coriander, and put it in a food processor. While I was doing this, Adam was using a microplaner to grate a thumb-sized piece of ginger (which I had peeled for him) into the food processor too. I then added six lime leaves (available in Tesco in their ‘exotic’ seeds and spices section) finely chopped. We put the lid on the bowl and Adam blitzed everything until it was all finely chopped and well mixed. I scraped the paste out into a large bowl, and then added a packet of back bacon (roughly chopped) to the food processor. Again, Adam held down the pulse button until the bacon had turned into a coarse mush. We added this to the spice paste and then mixed in 1200g of minced pork. I got Adam to use his hands to mix everything together. Once everything was mixed consistently, I covered the bowl and put it in the fridge for the flavours to mingle while Adam washed his hands. We tidied away everything we were finished with, and got ready to start preparing the dessert.

Gordon Ramsay’s Fast Food contains a recipe for Summer Fruit Trifle, so we took that and adapted it to suit the ingredients we could get. I washed two packets of raspberries (about 300g), and Adam poured them into a saucepan. We also added a punnet of defrosted frozen blackberries (about 350g) and 3 tablespoons of caster sugar, and I put the pan on a gentle heat for a few minutes until the fruit had begun to soften. I poured the fruit into a bowl and left it to cool. We put a packet of Amaretti biscuits (250g approx) in a ziploc bag, half at a time, and Adam used a rolling pin to crush them. Be careful not to bash them too hard, as you don’t just want to be left with dust. Adam divided the crushed biscuits between eight glasses, reserving some to sprinkle on top.

As our guests were now beginning to arrive, myself and Adam started to prepare the food for serving. I poured the chilled Melon Soup into shot glasses, and Adam put a piece of parma ham on top of each one and left one out at each person’s place.

For the chips, we scrubbed eight to ten potatoes, and cut them longways into between six and eight chunky chips, depending on the size of the potato, and put them in a pan of cold water, leaving their skins on. We brought the pan to the boil, parboiled them for five minutes, and then I drained the water, shook them around in the pan, drizzled a generous amount of oil over them, and poured them onto two baking trays. Adam put them in an oven at 180deg C, and we left them there for about half and hour, until they were crispy.

I took the mince out of the fridge, and Adam took handfuls of the mixture and formed them into sixteen balls, which he flattened to form into patties. I heated two frying pans on the hob, adding just enough oil to cover the bottom of each pan. When it was hot I added the burgers and cooked them over a med-high heat for about eight to ten minutes, turning them over halfway through, until they were nice and brown on the outside and cooked in the middle. I transferred them all the a big dish which Adam brought to the table, and we ate them with the chips, buns, cheese, tomato and salad (and some previously leftover homemade ketchup!).

To finish the dessert, I whipped two cartons of whipping cream (500ml in total). We spooned half of the cream over the biscuits, added two spoonfuls of the fruit, the rest of the cream on top, and then another spoonful of the fruit and Adam sprinkled the reserved crushed biscuits over that.

It’s important when cooking with children to be able to keep them occupied. If you are cooking more then one course, make sure you time the preparation so that there aren’t long periods of inactivity. If that can’t be avoided, then take that opportunity to get your child to help set the table. If you want children to play an active role in cooking, make sure you are preparing something where exact quantities aren’t critical, as too much fiddly measurements will be too difficult for children to master. Finally, to reiterate Nigella Lawson’s advice, doing ordinary, everyday real cooking with children is more to the point then making any amount of chocolate Rice Krispie cakes.


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